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Leadership: Not Just for CEOs Anymore

Leadership: Not Just for CEOs Anymore

Why We Need Leaders At Every Level, Now

When I started my career I worked in the “worldwide headquarters” of a manufacturing company in Chicago. Only the CEO and a small handful of the top execs had access to the strategic plan, copies of which were numbered and stored in files in a locked filing cabinet. When I found a copy and walked it up to the legal department, I created quite a stir.

“You didn’t read it, did you?” thundered the senior in-house counsel, as if a 25-year-old project specialist might bring the company to its knees by actually knowing its goals and direction. This was back when we all thought that if everyone “would just do their job” (and know their place) our organizations would be successful.

We know now that none of that is true. Today, we want every employee to know the strategic direction of the organization and to understand his or her role in meeting overarching goals. We want employees to do more than what is written in their job descriptions—because we can no longer anticipate the client questions and requests or the ethical situations that could face anyone at any level, from our receptionist to our cleaning staff to our call centers and our accounting departments. Every employee has the potential to affect our brand, so we want each one to lead no matter his or her position.

We need leaders at every level because our organizations are in uncharted waters from a marketplace standpoint. Our competitors are no longer a short list of similarly-sized companies within a one-day driving radius of our main operations. Whether down the hall or across the ocean, our competitor may be an established behemoth, a “onesie” consultant with a “killer app,” or a startup with disruptive technology.

We need every employee to lead in order to minimize issues, cement customer relationships, create productive work environments, and move our organizations forward.

How can we select, develop, and retain leaders throughout our organizations?

  1. Define leadership. Name it, describe it and share that information with every employee. In some organizations, core competencies (expected skills and behaviors of all employees) are defined that very often lend themselves to support leading at every level. These core competencies might be strategic thinking and decision-making, integrity/accountability, inclusion, resilience in the face of change, and relationship building, etc. Are these not a leader’s skills?
  2. Use your website to communicate that everyone in your organization leads. Regardless of role, employees display strategic thinking and decision-making, integrity, accountability, inclusion, resilience in the face of change, and relationship building (or whatever the specific skills needed for your leaders in your organization).
  3. When it comes time to make a hiring decision, hire leaders who fit your organization’s definition of leadership. Add your organization’s core competencies and leadership qualities to every job description, and teach managers to use behavioral interviewing to uncover these skills and behaviors in order to hire the best leaders for every open position.
  4. Recognize and reward leaders at every level. On a daily basis, ensure that managers are thanking employees for going above and beyond: if your organization values leaders who take initiative and you see an employee consistently participating in group discussions, then reward that employee! Create a recognition process (with meaningful rewards—ask your employees—these might be gift cards, special parking privileges, conference fees, new technology, etc.) that encourages employees to nominate leaders from anywhere in the organization. Showcase your leaders online, in your organization, and in the media.
  5. Make leadership development available to all, no matter their level. Lift up your leaders at every opportunity and help every employee understand what leadership looks like for their position. Help them understand that leadership is learned and practiced in the trenches. Prepare your employees for increasing leadership responsibilities, because, as famed basketball coach John Wooden once said, “When opportunity comes, it is too late to prepare.”

Leaders attract other leaders, and no organization can have “too many” leaders. Leaders in the middle or even at entry levels can have a profound effect on an organization. Leaders help to keep turnover low, and morale and productivity high. Leadership is a learned constellation of skills that can be perfected at every career level and stage.

As John Maxwell says, “Leadership is a choice you make, not a place you sit.” Why wait until your leaders are in the C-suite to start developing them? Why not develop them now? 

Nancy S. Ahlrichs

Nancy S. Ahlrichs Nancy is an expert in organizational development, intergenerational communication and management, employee engagement and productivity, and managing Generations X and Y.

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